The public has the right to see the Brexit papers, whatever the Government may think

The leaking of the Brexit papers if it happened would be entirely justified in the public interest. Complete, rather than selective, disclosure is obviously far preferable

Tuesday 28 November 2017 17:39
Comments
David Davis claimed during the referendum campaign that the ‘exact same’ benefits of the EU single market would be enjoyed after leaving the bloc
David Davis claimed during the referendum campaign that the ‘exact same’ benefits of the EU single market would be enjoyed after leaving the bloc

Whether the British public ever get to see some, all or, most likely, just most of the economic assessments now being released, in selective form to the Brexit Select Committee, one thing is very clear about these “Brexit Papers”. The fact that ministers are at such pains to withhold some of them is because they are either inadequate to the task or that they would weaken the UK’s position in the Brexit talks or a mixture of both. This is not encouraging.

It is not difficult to believe that at least some of them will detail the real economic damage that is about to be inflicted on substantial sectors of the economy through leaving the European Union, the UK’s largest export market for goods and services and an integral part of the British financial system, business and professional life for the best part of a half century. For if they were full of sweet insouciance at the prospect of tariffs, non-tariff barriers to trade and visas being imposed on British goods, services and workers going into the European Union that could only strengthen the position of the British delegation at these crucial talks, and they would already have been duly spun and published to the advantage of the UK interest. They have not, of course, and we can only imagine the bad news contained in their pages.

There is, though, an alternative explanation, scarcely less galling. That is that the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, found himself in a tight corner at a select committee and breezily told MPs that there was a superficially impressive body of work that had been undertaken within government that detailed exactly what the consequences of Brexit would be – even though in reality that work was, at best, sketchy. This would confirm the impression, apparently widespread among the EU27, that the British are suffering a “chaotic” Brexit, confused about their aims, deluded about the costs, and simply ignorant about the nature of such impossible problems as the Irish border question.

The revelation that Her Majesty’s Government’s preparations for the nation’s economic future amount to around 1,000 pages of guesswork and a few spreadsheets is extremely damaging to Mr Davis personally and to the Government he is a part of. There have been rumours about Whitehall turf battles and tensions within departments as the Brexit process grinds on, with the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, pursuing, intermittently, his own freelance Brexit negotiations, albeit unilaterally and in the public domain. The stories that Theresa May has taken personal charge of the Brexit process is only partially reassuring. In the meantime, in the favourite phrase of the Brussels establishment, the clock is ticking.

What then should Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit Select Committee do next? He should certainly call Mr Davis to the committee to explain himself. Mr Benn and Labour’s leadership were right to push the Government to release the documents via a binding vote in the House of Commons, and they are owed an explanation of the failure to do so. Sir Keir Starmer is also entirely reasonable in asking that Mr Benn and his committee now review Mr Davis’s case and what papers they have been sent thus far. They will then decide – for it is their decision, delegated to them by the Commons – if it is satisfactory, and if not, then they should use every parliamentary procedure to force ministers to release the missing papers, or any edited or redacted passages in them. Mr Benn’s committee can then get on with the job of editing them sensibly for public consumption – for the public have the right to know what their Government thinks.

Parliament’s will was plainly stated in the vote on 1 November: it was to share in the Brexit process and, thereby, to take back control of its own affairs from the executive (whether in Brussels or London). Jacob Rees-Mogg, who may have an agenda of his own in his ambition to become the next Speaker of the Commons, is at least consistent in fighting for the historic rights of the Commons to be respected. The leaking of the Brexit papers if it happened would thus be entirely justified in the public interest. Complete, rather than selective, disclosure is obviously far preferable.

Ministers and their supporters on the Tory back benches routinely make the case that too wide a circulation of commercially sensitive material and the UK Government’s accumulations would compromise the national interest and damage post-Brexit economic prospects. Further, it is implied, the Brexit Select Committee, which includes some vicious anti-Brexiteers, cannot be trusted not to leak the contents of some documents. There are two answers to that. First, this is not some random Freedom of Information request; Parliament has willed this disclosure, with no caveats. Such judgements are now a matter solely for Mr Benn and his colleagues on the select committee. Whether the MPs on the committee can be trusted or not is a matter for Parliament, not for government.

Second, there is the plain fact that there is an increasing unease about the manner and the financing of the Leave campaign during last year’s referendum (as well as the result). Some disturbing questions about Russian interference, abuse of social media, lies, financial flows and other matters have been raised. The Electoral Commission has launched an investigation into some – but only some – of these. If the public believe further that the Government has wilfully misled them about research work undertaken that would have been material to the Brexit process, then the legitimacy of the referendum result will be undermined to the point of collapse. A nation plainly so divided about the future of the UK deserves, at the very least, to be given full and candid disclosure of the consequences. More to the point, it should be given the opportunity to vote on the final terms (and consequences) of Brexit as these become crystallised. Too many people now feel misled about Brexit and the claims about trade and funding for the NHS, for example. Too many feel cheated by the Government’s arrogant behaviour since and the new stress on a hard Brexit when Mr Davis claimed during the campaign that the “exact same” benefits of the EU single market would be enjoyed after leaving the EU.

The public – on all sides – is also deeply dismayed by the progress of the talks, and the calibre of the UK team. To give Britain any chance of being able to once again be a nation at ease with its destiny, whatever it turns out to be, a final and definitive vote on the terms of Brexit is an imperative. With that, whichever way it goes, the country could experience a form of “closure”. Without it, the suspicions, conspiracies and grievances will only multiply, as they did over the war in Iraq, and constitute an ever-present open wound on the body politic. The missing Brexit papers are only a part of a wider malaise.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in